Did you ever wonder how children learn to think the way they do or why some people embrace one set of morals and values while others adopt very different ones? Closer to home, why do some of you read this column and think I am totally falling off the cliff of reason but others smile or grunt in agreement as they read?
People famous for seeking answers to such questions, like James Fowler and Jean Piaget, discovered patterns of growth and development we all share. I have been thinking about what they learned as I try to make sense of people consumed with “The Big Lie” about the last presidential election, or the zealous false equivalency of “back the blue” with the aftermath of four hundred years of slavery, or even the childish food fights in our City Council. It can’t all boil down to the brand of news we watch either. Confirmation bias begins with particular ideas and beliefs and then we go in search of confirmation.
When the hard edge of our experiences contradict what we passionately believe but still we insist on believing the world is how we say it is, what the heck is going on? Perhaps it goes back to our childhood and how we develop and grow.
From birth to six (or so) humans are little sponges. We absorb information and experience in the world around us. We learn to walk and speak, what’s good to eat and what’s yucky, to not touch a hot burner or tell a lie. Most of the data entering our brains in this stage is not processed critically but collected and stored for the next stage. Think data entry and sorting.
Then from six or seven into early adolescence, we receive our primary lenses through which to interpret that reservoir of experience. We begin to recognize who we are affiliated with, and what it means to be “us.” We form a self-identity around who our family is and what is different about us from our classmates and others. We are told by the clubs, organizations, religion, and even nation our family affiliates with, what it means that we belong to them. They tell us how the world is and how to act in it. All of it is used to interpret our previous and current experiences. They are our filters or lenses.
Then, and it isn’t age-specific, something happens. We have an experience that contradicts what our affiliations have taught us. Maybe our parent dies even though we were taught that God loves us and rewards us for being good. Maybe we learn in school how awful racism is but that contradicts what we hear at home. Maybe we’re told to stay away from certain kids because “they’re no good,” but then we discover we like them. Whatever it is, we have an experience that smacks our belief in the face and we must decide: Explore if other beliefs we were taught aren’t true and go searching for more information and new lenses, or remain in the shelter of our affiliations? The more ardent the affiliation, the less likely that even contradictory experience will lead to a change in belief and understanding.